Does Criticism of the War Undermine Troop Morale?

 Tech Central Station

December 9, 2005

One of the lessons of Vietnam taught to American officer cadets is that successful prosecution of a long-term war requires support from the people, the government, and the military. It is considered axiomatic that, if any leg of Clausewitz’ Remarkable Trinity[1] falters, a war effort is doomed.

This dictum came into focus again recently when Congressman John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee, called for a rapid pull-out of all troops from Iraq in a provocative speech that dubbed the war “a flawed policy wrapped in illusion.” He was immediately lambasted for suggesting that the United States “cut and run” and for strengthening the resolve of America’s enemies.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan compared Murtha to Michael Moore. Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed that, “A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists, an invitation to further violence against free nations and a terrible blow to the future security of the United States of America.” President Bush agreed that, “An immediate withdrawal of our troops from Iraq will only strengthen the terrorists’ hand in Iraq and in the broader war on terror.”

Further, many argued that such talk was undermining the morale of our soldiers in harm’s way. Vice President Dick Cheney dubbed withdrawal talk “self-defeating pessimism.” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked viewers of ABC’s “This Week” to, “Put yourself in the shoes of the American soldiers who are losing lives and losing limbs and believe that it is a noble cause.”

A recent Washington Post poll suggests the Republicans are getting the better of the argument, with 70 percent agreeing that criticism of the war by Democratic senators hurts troop morale and 44 percent saying morale is hurt “a lot.” Even among self-identified Democrats, 55 percent think criticism hurts morale while only 21 percent say it helps morale.

Some anecdotal evidence also suggests that the troops themselves are angry. For example, Sergeant Mark Russak, an infantryman serving in Iraq, sent a blistering letter to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review castigating Murtha,

“How dare you, Mr. Murtha — a Vietnam veteran — sell out soldiers in combat right before the end of a successful mission! Your behavior is inexcusable. You should be ashamed. I am sure the terrorist insurgency is grateful to you for announcing our defeat days before yet another victory in this country. You owe every American soldier a formal apology.”

As obvious as it may seem that criticism by politicians would undermine troop morale, though, the evidence is scant. Brookings Institution analyst Michael O’Hanlon is actually quite concerned by the disconnect between popular opinion on the war and the attitudes of those who are fighting it:

“Increasingly, civilians worry that the war is being lost, or at least not won. But the military appears as confident as ever of ultimate victory. . . . The military’s enthusiasm about the course of the war may be natural among those four-star officers in leadership positions, for it has largely become their war. Their careers have become so intertwined with the campaign in Iraq that truly independent analysis may be difficult. But it is striking that most lower-ranking officers seem to share the irrepressible optimism of their superiors. In talking with at least 50 officers this year, I have met no more than a handful expressing any real doubt about the basic course of the war.”

Congressman Jack Kingston, Vice Chairman of the House Republican Conference, reported back from his trip to Iraq that,

“First and foremost: the war that we saw is not the same war that we are reading in the media everyday. In fact, our soldiers are very frustrated that the media is only reporting the bad news instead of highlighting the progress being made.

“Our troops are in high spirits and are doing well. Their morale is high, and they are proud of the work that they are doing.” [Emphases in original]

Even Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, in a speech Monday criticizing the press for harping on the negative, asked the rhetorical question, “Which view of Iraq is more accurate, the pessimistic view of the so-called elites in our country, or the more optimistic view expressed by millions of Iraqis and by some 155,000 U.S. troops on the ground?”

Soldiers are a remarkably resilient group. Indeed, I am always impressed when I run into people I served with as a young lieutenant — who are now lieutenant colonels (yet, surprisingly, not nearly as old as lieutenant colonels were when I was a lieutenant!) at how optimistic they are compared to most of us. This includes men like Lanier Ward, severely wounded in one of the first IED attacks in Iraq in June 2003, who has spent more than two years recovering from his injuries and will never regain full use of his once-dominant right arm yet is raring to go back to Iraq to lead young men. Appearing on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” a few months later from the hospital, he told the host:

“Most of the soldiers you’ll come upon today will tell you three things: That they were very proud of what they were doing, they were very proud of the units they were in, and they’ll tell you if they could go back they could.”

This isn’t just a West Pointer giving the party line. He has said essentially the same thing privately the two times I’ve seen him since, at his promotion to lieutenant colonel and at a reunion of his old cadet friends in Chicago last month.

While Ward’s attitude is exemplary, it is by no means unique. Those who volunteer to be soldiers in a society without a draft are just different. I recall being out on maneuvers in Germany shortly after reaching my first unit in 1989 when Operation Just Cause broke out in Panama. To a man, the lieutenants were all frustrated that we were stuck in Europe doing peacetime work while others “got” to go to war. Four years later, when I was in graduate school, I was sarcastically referring to it as Operation Just ‘cause.

Similarly, when our unit got mobilized for deployment to Saudi Arabia for what would become Operation Desert Storm, virtually all of the officers and men were proud to be going over to help liberate the Kuwaiti people from their invaders. Again, as a cynical grad student, I opposed going to war in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and elsewhere on the grounds that there were “no vital American interests at stake.” (Joining me, as Michael Kinsley points out, was Dick Cheney, who had apparently not developed his qualms about criticizing policy with American troops on the ground.) The soldiers who served in those campaigns, though, were almost universally enthusiastic about them and, to the extent they had qualms, such were about not being allowed to do more to accomplish their mission.

Another thing to bear in mind is that soldiers in a war zone are perhaps the least attuned among us to what’s being said on television. During Desert Storm, my parents anxiously watched CNN several hours a day trying to keep up with what was going on. Meanwhile, I was focused on the mundane duties of a platoon leader, making sure my troops were taken care of and that we were ready to fire rockets down range when called upon. The only news I got was from my nightly operations briefs and from days-old copies of the Stars and Stripes when the mail got delivered.

Soldiers ultimately decide for themselves whether their mission is “worth it.” To the extent that they are concerned with political debates in Washington, it is mostly about the small picture: ensuring they get the tools and equipment they need to survive and get the job done. While they may be interested in grand strategy, it seldom motivates them to risk life and limb. They may agree or disagree with establishing a foothold for democracy in the Middle East but they fight for their comrades-in-arms, out of genuine concern for locale villagers whose situations they empathize with, and for hundreds of other reasons unique to each soldier.


[1] This theory is almost universally mistakenly attributed to Carl von Clausewitz and his classic On War. In fact, it originated with Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982). See Edward J. Villacres and Christopher Bassford “Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity,” Parameters, Autumn 1995.

Original article